Athletes don’t always eat healthy – The prevalence of eating disorders in sports

Sport is often regarded the principle display of health and fitness but sometimes there can be a dark side to high performance sport. Once of which is the prevalence of eating disorders which can have a huge impact on an individual’s health and psychological welfare. The main eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia being where an individual tries to maintain a bodyweight lower than a healthy bodyweight. Bulimia being where an individual will go through periods of food restriction then binge eating large of amount of food after which he/she will to get rid of the food consumed, typically by forced vomiting. In a sports environment noticeable symptoms are similar to that of overtraining, these may include; weight lost, constant overuse injuries, fatigue and prolonged underperformance. 

The work of Sundgot-Borgen and Torstveit[1],, in which they looked at 1620 elite male and female athletes comparing them to controls (n=1696), looked at the prevalence of clinical and sub-clinical eating disorders between the two populations. The study used both a self-questionnaire and a clinical interview and concluded that elite athletes (13.5%) had a higher prevalence of eating disorders then the control group (4.6%). This study shows a significant increase of incidence of eating disorders in athletic populations in comparison to the general public. 

With this in mind, one cannot ignore the possibility of development of eating disorders within weightlifting athletes. Especially considering that athletes competing in weight-dependent sports has been shown to higher of prevalence then athletes competing in other sports where weight is less on an important issue[2]. A coach needs to be aware of the signs and symptoms of such eating disorders and sound nutrient/weight lost education can be a useful tool for athletes. Allowing athletes to fully understand safe weight-lost principles in the hopes of reducing the possibility of athletes trying serve calorie restrictions or unsafe weight lost methods.

If an athlete is suspected of having potential eating disorder then medical intervention needs to be considered as well as if it is ethically right to allow the athlete to continue to train and compete. 

1. Sundgot-Borgen, J.; Torstveit, M.K. Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clin. J. Sport Med. 2004, 14, 25–32

2. Sundgot-Borgen, J. Risk and trigger factors for the development of eating disorders in female elite athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1994, 4, 414–419.

Ashley Foster
Ashley Foster Personal Trainer Derby | Website

Olympic Weightlifting coach, athlete and personal trainer with many years of experience within the industry. Based in Derby working out of semi-private personal training studios and a Crossfit box.

I work with various people from the everyday person wanting to put on muscle/lose weight to part-time athletes wanting to improve performance.

My training philosophy is that a person should be able to enjoy a healthy lifestyle with a good fitness level so they can have fun playing with their kids, not be out of breath walking up the stairs and be able to live an independent life into old age.

I enjoy working with people who like to challenge themselves and love the changes they see from fitness. In my opinion there is nothing better than seeing a client achieving something that they once thought was impossible.

As an athlete I have worked under various different coaches from top strength and conditioning coaches to GB coaches. Providing me with an amazing opportunity to learn from some of the best in the field. I have been a part of British Weightlifting regional talent squad back which provided some good knowledge bombs and some experience of a high performance environment.

Although that did come to an end when I broke my arm in two places during a weightlifting accident a couple of weeks before the England championships. All fully healed and back to full strength I now enjoy lifting again. Aiming once again to not only qualify for nationals but also to be competitive with my weight class by 2020 Nationals. Breaking a ton of PB's along the way.

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